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The Mysteries review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘perceptive and penetrating’

Laurietta Essien in The-Mysteries at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

This is quite the achievement. Writer Chris Thorpe and director Sam Pritchard have toured six towns and cities in the North, and from their experiences crafted a contemporary cycle of Mystery plays – the biblically-themed collections of shows that toured England in medieval times.

Each play reflects the community that inspired it and they were first performed in front of those communities earlier this year.

Individually, they are modest, detailed works,of varying quality, but collated now in Manchester, their combined effect is remarkable: a composite picture of a confused countryside, and an insightful exploration of the mythologies towns make for themselves.

Five of the plays follow a similar pattern: two intertwining stories on a similar theme, wrapping together past and present.

In Eskdale, Cumbria, a woman returns home to a landscape preserved in the past. In Whitby, North Yorkshire, a local lad protests the closure of an information centre and the ghost of a sea-going suicide stalks the streets. In Boston, Lincolnshire, an accidental death splits open the seam between established families and East European farmhands.

Thorpe’s storytelling is at its most impactful when it is at its quietest. When in feudal Staindrop, County Durham, for example, the aristocratic landlord’s lackey raises his tenant’s rent, echoing the area’s legendary history. Or when in Stoke, Staffordshire, a homeless alcoholic finds redemption in piecing together broken pottery.

Each area has its own issues – in Boston it’s immigration, in Stoke it’s politics – but similar themes slowly emerge, similar concerns. Changing identity. Evolving industry. Honouring heritage. Facing the future. Thorpe artfully threads them all through, each work a mixture of intimate scenes, direct audience address, and playful, poetic narrations.

Each work apart from the last, that is. Here, Thorpe puts his hometown of Manchester under the microscope, and its response to the Manchester Arena bombing last year. A simple but smartly written multi-voiced chunk of text, it’s a tear-jerking attempt to distil the spirit of the city, and to take ownership – responsibility, even – for the trauma and tragedy. To fold it into Manchester’s story.

Sam Pritchard’s direction is intricate but unshowy, throughout. Each play unfolds deftly on Rosie Elnile’s wooden platform set, while leaf-laden branches dangle down from the ceiling. As the action moves across the country, the stage is populated by paraphernalia from each town – a nice touch. Sheep’s wool in Eskdale. Teacups in Stoke. Cauliflowers in Boston. The six-strong, multi-roling cast is excellent, embracing an easy-going, ego-less naturalism that invites empathy, throughout. Nigel Barrett is particularly good as a bustling Cumbrian busybody, a sozzled Lincolnshire bigot, and more.

On paper, this is the sort of project that sounds a bit earnest, a bit National Trust tea-towel, but it’s a remarkable accomplishment. A perceptive and penetrating journey from Lincolnshire to the Lake District.

Status review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘searching and meticulously crafted’

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Verdict
Modern-day Mystery cycle that intelligently explores identity and the stories towns tell themselves
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